Changing London

City churches: The square mile’s religious houses look to the future

In the final part of my series on the City’s churches, I look at how some needed to be re-built following the IRA bombs of the 1990s and consider how they are preparing for the future.

There is a tragic story behind the Gherkin in the heart of the City’s financial district. Towering 41-storeys high, the Swiss Re building, as it is officially known, stands on the site of what previously the Baltic Exchange which was badly damaged by an IRA bomb in 1992.

Three people were killed and almost 100 injured as a result of the explosion, while extensive damage was done to buildings in the surrounding area. The Baltic Exchange, which had moved into its ornate Portland stone headquarters in St Mary Axe Street in 1903, bore the brunt of the bomb. Only the brick shell of the grand hall was left standing and rather that re-build the decision was instead made – somewhat controversially – to build the Gerkin for the Swiss Re insurance company in its place.

Just a year on from the previous blast, in April 1993 a large truck bomb exploded in Bishopsgate, killing one person and injuring another 44 people. Millions of pounds worth of damage was done to buildings, not least to the medieval church of St Ethelburga the Virgin. First recorded in 1250 and re-built in the 14th century, it survived the Great Fire of 1666, but suffered badly as a result of the events of 1993.

In fact the damage was so great that it wasn’t in use again until 2002, when Prince Charles performed the (re)opening ceremony. What is considered the smallest church in London, does not now hold services in the traditional sense, but is a Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. While some original features survive sadly three commemorative windows remembering Henry Hudson, the English navigator, who attended communion here with his crew before his unsuccessful attempt to discover the North-West Passage were lost as a result of the IRA bomb attack.

But St Ethelburga’s was no means the only church to suffer damage as a result of the tragic events of 1992 and 1993. A number of other religious buildings – some of which had suffered both the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz – in the Liverpool Street area were also affected.

Maypole church

Lying just a stone’s throw from the Gherkin, the first St Andrew Undershaft church was built around 1147. It was in fact originally called St Andrew Cornhill, but adopted its new name as a result of a tall maypole (or ‘shaft’) erected alongside it every spring as part of the May Day festival.

However, events of 1517, on what became known as ‘Evil May Day’ when apprentices rioted against immigrants and foreign goods, resulted in 14 locals being hanged for inciting the destruction of foreigners’ properties. The curate of the nearby church of St Katherine Cree said in 1549 that the maypole was idolatrous and was quickly chopped up and burned down. Interestingly, a similar structure which was removed from another church, St Mary le Strand, is due to be re-instated in time for the London Festival of Architecture next year.

John Stow, the pioneering historian who wrote a ‘Survey of London’ which properly documented the city for the first time, was buried here in 1605 and is remembered in a ceremony every April. There is a marble monument in the church depicting him sitting at his desk and holding a quill pen, which is replaced every three years by the Lord Mayor.

The church was re-built around 1530 and, after avoiding damage by the Great Fire, it was restored a number of times in subsequent years. But in 1992 the church was damaged by an IRA bomb, which left a 17th century window depicting English monarchs destroyed. It was restored however and, although not used for regular services, today provides a home for Bible study classes.

Churches of the future

St Helen’s Bishopsgate, which actually oversees nearby St Andrew Undershaft, is another church that suffered severe damage as a result of the IRA bombings. As I have written in an earlier blog in this series, the building once formed part of the old Benedictine Church of St Helen and there were two distinct areas – one for nuns and the other for parishioners, with the groups separate by a screen. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century it reverted to being used as a parish church.

St Helen’s Bishopsgate

But although it survived the Great Fire and the Blitz, St Helen’s required considerable renovations after the IRA bombings. The work which was conducted in 1995, and resulted in the floor being set at a single level, was considered to be somewhat controversial given changes made to the interiors. Yet visiting today, it feels very bright and airy inside, and the fact that the chairs can be moved allows the space to be used for a variety of different functions.

If you look closely at the stained glass windows you will see one dating from 1884 which depicts Shakespeare, a reminder that the playwright lived in the parish (his name is recorded in a Parish Rate Assessment of 1597). The church also contains the tomb of Sir Thomas Gresham, the founder of the Royal Exchange and Gresham College, who died in 1579. And although modern features such as projectors and lighting have been installed, there are also many pre Great Fire monuments to see here.

Stained glass window at St Helen’s Bishopsgate

St Helen’s is perhaps an appropriate place to end my six-part series touring the City’s churches because in many ways it is seems about as far from an early medieval church as you can imagine. You can imagine the shock of parishioners from a thousand years ago walking in to see a lively band providing the lively worship music.

But at its heart St Helen’s is still performing the same functions that churches did all those years ago by welcoming those through their doors to engage in Christian worship and providing outreach. Formats need to change to appeal to modern audiences and this is exactly what this congregation has done. And it seems to be a winning format: three services are held on Sundays to meet demand from attendees.

Since the 1960s when the modern St Helen’s was founded by a group of City workers, it has gone from strength to strength. As well as attracting a sizeable congregation on a Sunday, there is also a packed programme of talks and Bible study sessions through the week, many of which are held are times that mean square mile workers can visit before or after work. St Helen’s lays on everything from breakfast clubs to wine tasting as part of its evangelism and outreach.

And the work stretches far beyond the City limits. Since 2000 St Helen’s has trained over 300 apprentices, including 91 who are leading or working for UK churches and 42 working overseas. In recent years it has helped establish new churches in Croydon, Greenwich, Crouch End and Stratford. This sort of outreach is of course costly, but given its vision it still seems in a good shape for the future.

Churches in the City have been through a lot over the past thousand years or so. But it’s fantastic that despite fires, bombings, de-population and falling church attendance, there are so many great religious houses open and ready for your visit. They are fascinating places to while away some time, whether you are going to participate in a service or merely to take stock of the monuments that tell us so much about the history of London. The City’s churches are there for you to explore.

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